By David Paterson
MISSISSAUGA — The faces aren't the first feature you notice in Josh Kendrick's artworks, but they are the most affecting. Once you move past the bold colours and lines of his striking compositions you start to see them everywhere, lurking in the curve of a sweeping line or the edge of a feather. They are gracefully rendered in profile, but these are faces of suffering; their eyes are cast downwards and some of them are crying. Hidden in plain sight, they are an elegant expression of the anguish wrought on Kendrick's First Nations community by a string of suicides and attempted suicides last year.
Kendrick lives in Neskantaga, a small Oji-Cree settlement some 450 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. Last April, it hit the national news when it declared a state of emergency after two of its 420 registered inhabitants killed themselves within days of each other. Living in an isolated fly-in community hit by poverty, overcrowding and where around half the population is addicted to painkillers, around 10 more were attempting it each month.
In the depths of the crisis, 23-year-old Kendrick, who himself has a history of depression and suicide attempts, took his pens and paper down to the shores of nearby Attawapiskat Lake and drew. Always an artistic type, he was encouraged to take it seriously by a support team dispatched from the North-South Partnership for Children and Ryerson University, which saw art as a way for the community to come to terms with its grief.
Kendrick's work now forms part of a travelling exhibition of art from First Nations youth that is currently hanging in Mississauga Central Library. His pieces are on display alongside nature photographs by 16-year-old Alyssa Moonias, also from Neskantaga, and beadwork by Matilda Suganaqueb, an 18-year-old from Webequie First Nation, also in northern Ontario.
For Sherry Prenevost, part of the Ryerson team that spent time in Neskantaga, the exhibition is a display of the beauty and resilience to be found there.
"This art has its intrinsic artistic beauty, but it is also a show of awareness," she says. "It's an opportunity for us to glimpse the culture that exists here in Ontario and to become more aware of the human experiences and community experiences that are happening in the north."
Kendrick's energetic semi-abstract pieces blend cultural icons like the dreamcatcher or medicine wheel with vignettes of the stunning landscape around him and the faces of those who inspire him.
"I draw a face for each person I think about," he says, speaking on the phone from Neskantaga. "Most of the faces I draw are sad, because that's what I see around here, people being sad for lost loved ones."
In a town that's made up of three streets in about eight square kilometres of land, each loss is felt deeply. "Everybody knows everybody. We aren't all related, but when somebody goes, somebody commits suicide, then everybody is affected by it," he says.
Last December, the community was again rocked when the chief's son, 29-year-old Dwayne Moonias, took his own life. But there are tentative signs of optimism. Nobody has killed themselves so far this year, which by the tragic standards of Neskantaga, counts as reason for hope.
Kendrick, whose parents are both homeless and whose siblings are themselves struggling with depression, uses his art as a way of coping and hopes others will also take up a brush to exorcise their demons. Three of the works on show in Mississauga are from a community art project spearheaded by Kendrick in which he drew the outlines and allowed others to fill them in with paint. It was, he says, a moment of happiness.
"Everybody was smiling and having a good time. It was almost like there was no sadness."
Youth Voices of the North is on now at Mississauga Central Library (301 Burnhamthorpe Rd. W.)